Review: Cain by Luke Kennard

by Rhys Lawrence

Dr Luke Kennard is the University of Birmingham’s senior lecturer in creative writing. Alongside his academic work , Dr Kennard publishes fiction reviews for The National, an English language newspaper in the UAE, is the Canal Laureate for the Poetry Society and the Canal River Trust, and is both a poet and critically acclaimed writer for the stage. As well as reading his wonderful 2016 poetry collection Cain – published by Penned in the Margins – you can purchase his 2017 debut novel ‘The Transition’ from Fourth Estate, and come see the man for yourself with the Small Press Showcase at this year’s SO: To Speak Festival.

Cain by Dr Luke Kennard

Cain is a collection, formed in thirds, which has at its heart is a series of 31 anagrams of the 355 letters to be found in a passage from Genesis. The complexity of this form bleeds throughout the text; often we as readers must – as Luke Kennard has – segregate and rearrange in constant construction of meaning. Cain isn’t easy; it can’t be absorbed – read lazily and comprehended. It is a resplendent tapestry of thematic and formal complexities, and it is this puzzling integrity which excites its reader.

The constraint explored in the text’s phenomenally crafted centrepiece seems paradoxically liberating for Kennard’s writing. The linguistic strain of rearranging the same 355 letters time and again necessitates that poet and reader enter into a kind of implicit contract. We allow Kennard to confuse us, enforce complex exercises in semantic gymnastics and send us spiralling into our dictionaries. We accept that in capitalising “The Lachrymator” he may be personifying the object of tear gas itself, or he may conversely be assigning its irritant qualities to one of the text’s three central characters. Should the latter be the case one would assume this to be the sole female of the three, Adah, as she remains un-named in the central text despite being noted as present and active in the surrounding notes. Confusingly though, The Lachrymator is assigned male pronouns. One’s choice of interpretation here can greatly affect understanding of the surrounding passage, and moments such as this lead to Cain functioning as a work in which the formulation of meaning is a uniquely involving experience; the collection becomes a collaboration between poet and reader.

Anagram isn’t the only notable choice of form in Kennard’s work here – throughout Cain the poet presents a smorgasbord of refreshing techniques. The anagrams themselves are presented as the scripts of a fragmented, at times absurdist television show, whilst an often compelling “Inside the Actors Studio” narrates a turbulent production plagued by megalomania. This red-print text provides both a graphical and a contextual background to the meaty centre of the page, featuring interviews with the “writers” as well as aiding in the decryption of Cain’s slightly more oblique passages without ever feeling as if Kennard is engaging in a form of poetic hand-holding. In the two sections flanking The Anagrams Kennard includes snappy and thoughtful pages of religious dialogue, a recontextualised slice of a Wikipedia article and a remarkably well executed mimicry of an old-school text based adventure game.

It’s not just Kennard’s adroit deployment of such divergent forms that casts Cain as such a cover-to-cover standout though – a sizable portion of the acclaim that this 2016 award-sweeper received must certainly stem from Kennard’s tricky sense of humour. Kennard’s comedic ability is noteworthy through the first book of Cain; ‘She really gets you’ Cain tells our narrator as a self-scan checkout bleats out ‘Approval needed’. Progressing into Cain’s complex middle section introduces a new element of effectiveness to Kennard’s wit. Playful jokes can take a reader by surprise as they grapple to squeeze the meaning from a segment of Cain’s dense wording. Through several hints in the commentary we begin to become aware of the difficulty experienced in dispatching the letter H 41 times in each piece; a quotation from one of the show’s chief writers seems to channel Kennard himself in stating ‘I had a line of 41 Hs tattooed on my upper arm by this point’. Once this penny drops Kennard’s increasingly creative use of his abundant Hs become a source of sudden humour in the text; this drive to spend the letter manifesting at various points as a convenient stammer, as the snore of a side character and perhaps most ludicrously as the vocalisations  of a garden hose: ‘H20 H20 H20 H20’.

Failure seems a prevalent theme throughout this text; there are failed projects, failed relationships, failed stabs at a desired identity.  The narrator is a deeply flawed man, and at times seems to have developed very little across the odyssey that nestles between Cain’s gorgeously designed cover pages. With a closing poem that reminds us of our fleeting mortality however, and perhaps even our cursed heritage, one can’t help but feel as though sometimes reformation and recovery can be enough. The beauty of this text is in its slippery relationship with interpretation– as with any, the above reading of the collection is an exercise in textual cybernetics. Cain’s vastness is in its subjectivity; it is a collection to be read, enjoyed, loved, given to friends, agreed on, argued over and then loved even more.